The first month of the 2012 campaign had more downs than ups for the Rome Braves. Owners of the South Atlantic League's worst record at 6-18, the team struggled to find consistency in most phases of the game. The R-Braves were last in the circuit with a .221 batting average and next-to-last with a staff ERA of 5.45.
There were some silver linings, however. In addition to being one of the youngest teams in the league, Rome went 4-5 over its last nine April outings after enduring a seven-game losing streak. Starter David Filak ranked sixth in the SAL with a 1.73 ERA and fifth with an opponents' batting average of .182 to go with 11.1 strikeouts per nine innings.
At the plate, the most encouraging performance has come from third baseman Kyle Kubitza. The infielder was named SAL Player of the Week for the week of April 16-22 after batting .440 with two homers and eight RBIs. For the season he leads his team with four home runs, 13 RBIs, three triples and 15 runs scored. His round-tripper output, in fact, is one more than the rest of the team combined.
"I feel like things are going well in my first full season," said the 21-year-old Kubitza, who is second on the club with a .275 batting average and six doubles. "At the beginning of the year I was missing on a lot of fastballs. That led me to really start focusing on getting ahead in the count so I could sit on those pitches a little more often. Strikeouts are going to happen, but I am trying to cut down on those, as well. Right now my focus is on hitting the ball hard and trying to make things happen."
Kubitza has made impressive progress over the past four years. No team drafted him coming out of high school in Arlington, Texas, in 2008. His game made significant strides during his three seasons at Texas State, including a junior campaign in which he batted .310 with 12 doubles, seven triples, 10 home runs, 66 RBIs and 16 stolen bases. That performance led to his being drafted by the Braves in the third round last year as the 115th overall selection.
"I really enjoyed my three years at Texas State, and I would do it again in a minute," Kubitza said. "I received a lot of great coaching that helped me become a much better player. Going into the Draft, I heard a lot of things but I was unsure how everything was going to work out. It was a nice surprise to get picked by the Braves. Much like my time at Texas State, I couldn't imagine being in a better situation."
Kubitza impressed the Atlanta brass with his combination of speed and power. He also was a left-handed-hitting third baseman, which teams often covet. One of the questions about Kubitza centered on the inconsistency of his defense at the hot corner. Kubitza committed 23 errors during his junior year, leading to a modest .872 fielding percentage.
"In college, I struggled a little bit with my defense at third base," Kubitza said. "[Coaches] Luis Lopez and Luis Salazar helped me out a lot at the position last fall during instructional league, particularly with my footwork and some of the finer aspects of playing the position. The things they helped me with calmed me down and allowed me to relax. I feel like I've made a lot of improvements in that area. It's been a good learning process."
The same thing can be said for the 2012 season, both for Kubitza and the entire Rome team. Victories often take a backseat to player development, especially for young clubs in the lower Minors. Kubitza, however, believes brighter days are on the horizon after playing for manager Randy Ingle and with many of his current R-Braves teammates last year at Danville.
"The season's coming together, slowly but surely," Kubitza said. "As a team we've gotten off to a little bit of a slow start, but it's not because we aren't playing well. The biggest problem has been that everything hasn't come together on the same night. We have good guys and good players on this team, and I feel we're going to be fine. I know what type of talent we have on this team, and I believe things will start coming together in the near future."
Bundy's hittable: Delmarva pitcher Dylan Bundy proved he is indeed hittable when Asheville's Delta Cleary Jr., led off the April 30 contest with a single to left. The next batter lined into a double play, and from there it was business as usual for the fourth overall pick of the 2011 Draft. In five starts, covering 17 innings, Bundy has allowed the lone single, two walks and no runs while striking out 25 batters.
Most of an opportunity: Augusta's Paul Davis, who opened the season with six outings from the bullpen, filled in for injured starter Joseph Biagini and responded by tossing five shutout innings in a 7-1 win over Hagerstown on April 30. Displaying impressive control of his fastball while pounding the strike zone, Davis earned the victory by limiting the Suns to three hits and no walks with six strikeouts.
Souza sensational: Hagerstown's Steven Souza had a night to remember April 25 during the Suns' 24-2 victory at Rome. Souza went 4-for-6 with a home run, a triple and nine RBIs. His efforts contributed to the R-Braves breaking a pair of dubious franchise records, including most runs and hits (24) allowed in a single contest.